"New Worlds Are Our Oyster."
Kate Brallier is a fiction editor in New York, who has spend most of her life summering on a Maine island which bears a suspicious resemblance to the setting for her first paranormal romance novel, Seal Island (Tor, March 2005) Her current novel, The Boundless Deep—a paranormal whaling romance set on Nantucket—is coming out from Tor in January of 2008. She lives in New York with her husband, two computers, and far too many books.
An Interview with Kate Brallier
PNR: Can you tell us a little about how you started writing; was it something you have always wanted to do?
Kate B.: Yes, always. Ever since I dictated my first poem to a teacher in pre-K—which started something like: “The rainbow danced around the sun and came to put it out,”—I’ve known I was someone who loved living in world of her own devising as much as the real world. (In fact, looking back on that moment, you can pretty much see two of my greatest loves right there: writing, and bright, shiny objects. <grin>)
I started my first novel at the age of ten, and got about 100 pages into it. It was a science fiction novel about the second Ice Age coming to New York City, and contained a glacier that moved at (for glaciers!) supersonic speeds. Very silly! At age 19, I finished a fantasy novel over the course of a summer, scribbled in two notebooks, and then I moved onto typewriters (which probably shows my age; computers didn’t really exist in any viable commercial format until I was a sophomore in college) for my second novel—a very angsty SF piece. I then wrote the sequel to that book on my first computer (whoo-hoo!), and then tried another fantasy novel. (You can tell what I was reading growing up.)
In the meantime, I had been in and out of a graduate program in developmental biology, and when I determined that the life of a research biologist was not for me, I wrote to all the SF and Fantasy imprints in New York (where I grew up), begging for a job. And I got one! During my early days in publishing, I found an agent, and tried to sell that last fantasy novel I mentioned. Only... It got lost in the mail, and by that point I was 120 pages into something I was even more excited about. And—to my delight and amazement—that new one sold. I ended up publishing three novels in that series, which was a sort of Victorian-flavored assassin, adventure fantasy, under my own name.
Yet by the time I was ready to try my hand at some new projects, most of my best friends were heading up the imprints I could have sold to, and that just seemed like a remarkably bad idea. So, I swapped names and genres, and moved to my other great reading love: paranormal romance. If I wasn’t reading SF or Fantasy, I was devouring everything by Mary Stewart, Barbara Michaels, and their ilk. And it was thanks to their influence that I started writing the Brallier books.
PNR: Do you have a strict writing schedule? How do you balance your personal and writing time?
Kate B.: Heh! Yeah, this is a hard one—especially for me. As I mentioned, I edit books for a living, and that is just not a job you can leave at work at the end of the day. There are always manuscripts piling up, and never enough time in the day. So writing time for me tends to be in snatched moments and weekends. Fortunately, I am pretty fast once I get going, which means I actually get to have a second career!
But in terms of discipline, we recently instituted a policy of “Writing Wednesdays” in our house. I am married to fantasy writer David Keck, who also publishes with Tor—we like to say we are a two Tor family!—and his day job (middle school teaching) is just as time-consuming as mine. So we’ve tried to set aside at least one weeknight where we each get on our separate laptops and pound away.
PNR: Who or what has been your biggest influence as a writer? On your work?
Kate B.: Oh, definitely Barbara Michaels and Mary Stewart. In the Barbara Michaels books, particularly, I always loved how the supernatural element is the thing that shakes up the characters’ world, that brings chaos and fear. And that the romance is always between humans challenged by the existence of that paranormal element. I know that the current trend in this field (which I both edit and love to read, so I am certainly not slighting it!) is to have the heroes and heroines possessing the paranormal talents themselves. But when it comes down to what I am most interested in writing, I continually find myself drawn to the perhaps more old-fashioned idea of magic as the frightening, the unexplainable. The thing that touches on an otherwise ordinary life and gives it that brief moment of the extraordinary.
PNR: What are the greatest challenges to you as an author?
Kate B.: To find time to get everything done? <grin> Seriously, though, my husband frequently uses a phrase which I love: “darker, madder, deeper.” And that is the challenge I am constantly holding myself to as an author. There’s the superficial level at which you can treat any legend, any magic, but then there is that darker, more dangerous level, of costs and consequences, that really gives a story resonance. And I know I tend to be too nice to my characters, so I am actively trying to embrace the “darker, madder, deeper” in every story. Not always an easy thing to do—but I am trying.
PNR: What do you feel are the essential elements of a great story?
Kate B.: Both as a reader and an acquiring editor, I am a character gal. I always say that if I love the characters, they could be sitting around reading the phone book, and I’d be happy to spend time in their world. Which is not entirely true—but really, more true than not. But all my life, I’ve also been drawn to love stories, and I can’t name one of my Top Favorite Books of All Time that doesn’t have this element in it. Which is not the say the ending always needs to be a happy one; loving and losing has its own poignancy. But that moment of finding and falling for your one perfect other—and by perfect, I mean seeing someone flaws and all and still adoring them—well, it’s always been something that can reduce me to a quivering lump of happy jello.
Oh, and witty banter. I love witty banter. I could read whole books of nothing but witty banter. >;-) (Though, of course, better when the witty banterers are falling in love...)
PNR: Why do you feel romantic fantasy is such a popular sub-genre of paranormal romance?
Kate B.: Well, it’s got everything, doesn’t it? Love and magic...what more could you ask for?
But actually, I’m not being entirely facetious. Two of the top-selling genres are romance and fantasy, and why? I think the reason is that they each represent a triumph in something. A triumph in love. A triumph in good over evil. And I think people find it comforting to know that somewhere—even if it is only in the pages of a book—these sorts of triumphs can occur. I think it gives people hope that their own lives can be transformed, in however minor a way.
PNR: Your first novel, SEAL ISLAND, was released from Tor in 2005, and was very popular with readers and reviewers; how does it feel to have such positive recognition for your work?
Kate B.: It feels amazing! I had so much fun writing that book that it is just a delight to find that readers feel the same way. I still get a thrill when I discover new writers I love, and if I can give people even a fraction of that pleasure, then I have done my job. In fact, some of my favorite fan letters are those who write to say that they have never read many books before, and are now hooked, thanks to me. And as someone who lives with books in every spare corner of her apartment...that just the coolest feeling on earth, knowing that you have opened someone up to this whole, wonderful new world!
PNR: SEAL ISLAND has elements of a contemporary romance, mystery, romantic suspense and fantasy. Did you find it difficult to balance these elements? Where did the idea for this story come from?
Kate B.: Actually, the balancing felt very natural, because these are all genres I read in extensively. I am a genre lover, and a commercial fiction lover, and proud of it. I remember being told as young girl with my nose constantly in an SF or Fantasy novel: “Why don’t you read a real book?” Well, these are real books—and the top of any genre represents some of the best writing and ideas you will probably ever encounter. In fact, all of my books will probably have elements of fantasy, mystery and romance, because those are the three things that most draw me to books in general.
PNR: In SEAL ISLAND you explore the Selkie legend, which has fascinated readers for centuries. What led you to choose this as the theme for your book? How much research was involved?
Kate B.: SEAL ISLAND was, in many ways, a very easy book to write. I grew up in the heart of New York City, but every summer since I was two and a half, my parents took me up to Maine. They were both teachers and had summers off, so every year I spent two months away from the urban jungle on the rocky beaches of Maine. For a number of years, we rented houses, but then we bought our own plot of land on an island about an hour from Acadia—complete with beach and a western exposure, which meant nightly sunsets over Penobscot Bay—and camped out. I had a 7’ x 9’ tent, my parents had a 10’ x 16’ tent, we had a screened dining tent and an open kitchen fly, and a shower my dad built, and it was pure heaven. (Well, except when it rained and my shoes molded.)
But one of my favorite parts of being in Maine was looking out over the rocks off our shore at low tide, and seeing all the harbor seals basking on the rocks, curved up at both end by tiny anvils.
When I decided I was switching genres to paranormal romance and needed a story, I knew I had to set my first one in Maine. And to me, Maine means seals. Which leads in turn to the selkie myth, which is something I have also always loved. But because I have this very practical streak—the same one that led me into the sciences for many years—the one problem I always had with the selkie myth had to do with the conservation of matter. I mean, harbor seals are small! You turn one into a man, and he’s what, 4 feet? Now, I’m only 5’ myself, but still...
So I started looking around in books, to see what I could learn about seals. And that is when I realized that the primary seal that lives off the coast of the British Isles, where the selkie legends originate, is the grey seal. And the grey seals are a secretive sort of seal that can grow to 8 or 9 feet in length. And when I further discovered that about 100 grey seals can be found around Penobscot Bay...well, a tale was born.
PNR: Do you feel your writing is character driven or plot driven? How do you balance these two elements?
Kate B.: Definitely character-driven. In fact, so much so that I often write myself into corners and then have to go back and re-plot things. I love letting the books unfold fairly organically—and adore that moment when you realize that the characters know more about themselves than you do, and often have to knock you over the head with it. When I start any given book, I always know my beginning and end points, but I’m not always sure entirely how to get from one to the other, and that is what I try to let my characters tell me. But I’m learning to get better at pre-plotting books, too, because it leads you down fewer blind alleys in the long run.
PNR: Your book SEAL ISLAND features Cecil, a strong heroine struggling to find her place in life, and readers have really connected with her; would you describe your writing as female focused? What is her appeal for readers?
Kate B.: Well, I really like to think of it as people-focused—though in reality, my readership probably is primarily female. I mean, I write what I like to read, and I’m a girl. But like any writer, I focus on issues that are important to me—and one of those has always been finding your own place in life, and figuring out who you are apart from other people’s perceptions. (My favorite book of all time is Tanith Lee’s The Silver Metal Lover, which deals with precisely these themes.) So I suspect that any Brallier novel will have elements of this. It’s a powerful battle that we all have to fight—I’ve certainly had to—and maybe that lends to its appeal.
But I’m also just fascinated by people and their interactions, in all their myriad forms. I love people-watching; I find it endlessly fascinating.
PNR: You have been complimented on your fascinating supporting characters as well as your heroine, Cecil. Could you tell us a little about how you develop your characters? Who has been your favorite character to write? The most challenging?
Kate B.: This probably goes back to the people-watching thing again. Characters sort of spring into being for me, be they supporting characters or main characters. For me, it all usually centers—oddly—around their name. If I have the wrong name for a character, I can’t bring them into focus at all. This was a huge issue with my latest novel, The Boundless Deep. I floundered through about four or five names for the heroine, but once I hit on the right one, I suddenly knew who she was, and the whole book snapped into focus around her.
I was also introducing my husband to Buffy the Vampire Slayer while I was writing that novel, and I know I was channeling Joss Whedon for some of the scenes. I love the way he and his team do dialogue and interplay between these smart and smart-mouthed characters. So with TBD, I actually had a blast just throwing my guys in a room together and watching them spark.
As for my favorite character... Well, that distinction has to go to Absalom—a character who was meant to be scene-filler and local color in my first fantasy novel, and ended up taking over both that book and the next two as a major series player and scene-hog, bucking for his own series. He hasn’t gotten it yet, but he still might, because he is damnably persistent, full of secrets, and a ton of fun to write.
PNR: Your second novel, THE BOUNDLESS DEEP, will be released from Tor in January 2008, and features a reincarnation theme; can you give us a sneak peek? Please tell us about the development of this story.
Kate B.: Absolutely! This book arose out my insane fascination with American whaling. I think my mom fed me songs like The Greenland Whale Fisheries at a far-too-impressionable an age, and the whole process just grabbed my imagination and never let go. After I finished SEAL ISLAND, I wasn’t ready to give up the sea just yet, and I think that lingering memories of the chanteys combined with a story idea I once had of a woman going into a museum and recognizing her past self in an old painting, sparked TBD.
I read up extensively on whaling—which was the most fun I have ever had doing research!—visited Mystic Seaport, New Bedford and Nantucket, and came up with the story of a young Midwesterner named Liza who has never seen the sea, but yet who has spent her life dreaming of a doomed whale hunt out of Nantucket. So when her grad school roommate offers her a chance to summer on Nantucket, she leaps at the chance—and discovers that she is no stranger to the island, or to one of its enduring mysteries (albeit one of my concoction): did the infamous whaling captain Obadiah Young really murder his wife?
You can read the first chapter up online at www.katebrallier.com, and the finished novel comes out in January 2008.
PNR: What is it about the romantic fantasy genre that captures your imagination? Is there a genre you haven’t written but would like to try?
Kate B.: As above, all my favorite things combined! And someday I’d also like to go back to fantasy, as well. My previous series is still not complete, and I have a few more ideas in that genre I want to explore. But that is for the future. For now...
PNR: Please tell us about the projects you are currently working on; what can readers expect to see in the coming months?
Kate B.: Well, for now, I have the next three Bralliers lined up in my head, ready to go. The book I am working on now, tentatively entitled THE LOVE TALKER, is set on Long Island, and takes on the legend of the Ganconer, aka, the Love Talker: a lesser-known Irish myth that my husband pointed me to. Following that, I have a nice ghost story set in Connecticut, which has a lot of parallels with the Tristan and Isolte story, and then an encounter with an incubus in New York City. So, plenty to keep me occupied in the years to come!
PNR: Thank you, Kate, for taking time out to speak with us. Where can readers find out what's new and how can they contact you?
Kate B.: And thank you! It’s been a delight. You can find me at: www.katebrallier.com.
(And for those of you curious about my other identity, a cursory web-search can turn it up pretty easily. But of course I will Say No More...) >;-)
March 1, 2005
Read the Review!
Cecil Hargrave lives in a cramped apartment in New York City, hates her job, and has no close friends. She yearns for something more, but what?
When Cecil inherits a beachfront house and a thriving business on picturesque Seal Island in Maine, she jumps at the opportunity to kickstart her life, despite her reservations about moving to New England. But even if stereotypes hold true and New Englanders are standoffish, she'll have a new career and a gorgeous home.
Much to her delight and surprise, Cecil settles rapidly into small-town life. She makes real friends, plays with the seals who live on the beach outside her house, and meets two very different men.
Tom, a darkly sexy novelist, has returned to his hometown to write. He and Cecil hit it off almost immediately, and their chemistry is explosive--but Cecil can't seem to stay away from the handsome drifter, Ronan, despite his secretive ways. It's like she's under a spell...
"The Boundless Deep"
Liza Donovan is a Midwestern girl haunted by dreams of shipwreck and the sea.
But in her first year of graduate school, she befriends an outgoing young woman who won't let the dreams rest. Jane announces that she has an aunt in Nantucket-the island around which Liza's dreams revolve-and come summer, they will go visit.
Yet when the two arrive, they aren't the only visitors to the old Nantucket house. The two young women must share their summer home with a brooding young man who is still trying to find his place in the world.
Nantucket stirs up far too many ghosts for Liza. She recognizes the house where they stay. She knows the town. The dreams keep her sleepless in the old house. It is as she finally starts to dig into the mystery behind her dreams that she meets the local museum curator: a young man with a boyish grin and sparkling green eyes.
Liza struggles to unearth the tragic past. Others have come back to the town over the years, but none have been able to solve the mystery that keeps her sleepless: Did the infamous Captain Obadiah Young murder his wife before setting sail on his final voyage, and why does Liza seem to have his memories? Liza must understand what happened all those years ago if she is to reclaim her own identity.
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